Thursday, January 3, 2013

Sye Ten Bruggencate and the Reliability of Scripture

I recently had a conversation with the notorious Christian apologist Sye Ten Bruggencate in the comment section of one of his videos on Youtube. The conversation ended rather abruptly, as he blocked me when I refused to take his standard bait and tell him how I know anything for certain given my worldview. I of course have no problem answering this, but anyone who has dealt with Sye before knows that once that conversation starts, there is no chance of him actually dealing with any other objections one might make against his worldview. So, I chose to ignore the question and ask my own. This lead to my being blocked and, curiously, to several of my comments being deleted.

The deleted comments contained my primary criticism of his position, and one that I feel is not emphasized enough by those who come into contact with Sye, so I thought I would go into it in more detail here. After all, at least here I won't risk being censored by my opponent.

One of Sye's most common claims is that the atheist, if he were being intellectually honest, would have to admit that God, if he exists, could reveal things to us in such a way that we could know them for certain. According to Sye, the Christian God does just that, and does it in several ways. He reveals some things to us through a sort of "inner knowledge," a kind of intuition. We know, even without learning anything about Christianity, that the True God exists. Now, Sye admits that he has no idea what sort of propositions are actually contained in this inner knowledge, but he assures us that such knowledge exists. When I pressed him about what the actual content of this knowledge was, he replied that "they know enough about him sufficient for their condemnation, but not sufficient for their salvation."

How exactly does Sye know this? As he puts it, he knows it because the bible tells him so. According to Sye, the bible is the means by which God reveals details about himself to us, and the knowledge that it imparts is knowledge that we can be absolutely certain is true. For Sye, revealed knowledge from God in the form of (primarily) scripture are the key to escaping the so-called "infinite regress" of non-Christian epistemology. While the unbeliever is forced to justify his reasoning by his reasoning, therefore reasoning in a "vicious" circle, the Christian can appeal to scripture which, as a "revelation from someone who knows everything," can guarantee certain knowledge.

This is just a rough sketch of Sye's position, but I think I have summed it up accurately. I encourage anyone who is curious about it to look him up. Refutations of his apologetic are not hard to come by. But I want to focus on one particular area that I think does get overlooked, and leave the rest in more capable hands.

The Problem of Appealing to Scripture for Absolute Certainty 

The problem that Sye has when he appeals to the bible is that he appeals to it as a means of obtaining knowledge that can be known with absolute certainty. This is much more dangerous for his position than appealing to something like a logical deduction, or some sort of argument that is rationally verified, because the bible is a material artifact that is subject to analysis in a very different way than philosophical argumentation. When we deal with the bible, we are dealing with a source of information that is, by it's very nature, imperfect in what it is capable of conveying to us.

Sye again would admit this, since he claims that the infallibility of our senses (and therefore, presumably, any information transmitter our senses come into contact with) is irrelevant when they are in the divine clutches of a being who is omniscient and omnipotent. Now, for the record, I don't even think we can go this far. I actually do not think an omniscient, omnipotent God could even do that, as I do not think certain knowledge of non self-attesting truths is possible. As Sye says, omnipotence only covers what is possible. Therefore, I have no reason to assume that a god of any sort could do something like this. But, for the sake of argument, I am willing to leave this aside for now.

Let's just assume that God could actually reveal some things to us in such a way that we could know them with absolute certainty. I maintain that, even if that were the case, the bible cannot be appealed to as a source of such knowledge. The reason is quite simple. In order for the propositions in the bible to be known to be true with absolute certainty, we would have to know with absolute certainty that these propositions a) are based on correct interpretation and translation, and b) reliably reflect what was original to the text. Such knowledge is simply not possible, therefore one cannot know with absolute certainty that the propositions put forward in the bible are true.

Now, I need to make it quite clear that I am not arguing that the bible is totally unreliable or that no interpretation can be trusted. I think that we actually can be pretty sure about what the bible actually teaches in most cases. Good scholarship has been done, and is still being done, and it is safe to say that much of what is in our modern bibles, and even a good amount of our interpretations of the text, can be assumed to be correct. But, that does absolutely no good when we start talking about absolute certainty. In order to have absolute certainty that biblical propositions are true, we cannot rely on even the most uncontested data regarding the text's trustworthiness. Our ability to interpret, translate, or verify the original contents of the bible are themselves imperfect, so any absolute knowledge will be completely unreachable. The fact is, even if everything in the bible were absolutely true, and God had stamped his sign of approval on each of the 66 books therein, we would have no way of knowing with absolute certainty if we had grasped that knowledge.

Consider translation. How can we know with absolute certainty that the bible has been properly translated to  perfectly reflect the original intent of the author? As I said before, I think we can be fairly confident in most cases that we do have the correct translation, but how can we be absolutely certain? Without giving a full recap of Deconstruction, I will consider it sufficient to point out that we can not have absolute certainty that we have properly understood the information transmitted to us by someone with whom we are talking to face-to-face, even if we know the same language. We each approach linguistic interaction with baggage that heavily cripples our ability to know for sure what the other person really means to communicate to us. In every interaction, there will be imperfections in our understanding of what we hear, no matter how clearly we think we have understood.

This problem is, of course, compounded significantly when our source of information is two thousand years old and was not written in our native language. There is just no way to know that what we are reading when we open our bibles accurately reflects the original intent of the author. Again, I believe we can be pretty sure, in most cases, that we have a good grasp of the central point the author is conveying, but that is epistemically
worthless when we start talking about absolute certainty.

This is not meant to be taken as some sort of post-modern jargon about our inability to communicate in any meaningful way. I'm not claiming this at all. I've even heard biblical scholars admit these things. But they, like any reasonable person, are fine with it. So what if it is remotely possible that our interpretations are wrong? We all live with a certain level of uncertainty, and the biblical scholars that I heard talk about this issue simply weighed the evidence and put their bets in with the interpretation they found to be the most plausible. Again, it's the way we all live. But Sye's position destroys this. According to him, these scholars don't know shit about the bible, because they admit that they could be wrong about their interpretation.

This inability to be sure about what we read in the bible is illustrated perfectly by the seemingly infinite number of interpretations that are floating around in Christendom. Sye apparently considers the fact that no two Christians can agree on the proper interpretation of a passage of scripture "irrelevant." At least that's what he told me in our interaction. But it is not irrelevant to his position. If Sye wants to claim absolute certainty, he must be able to demonstrate (not just make empty claims about) how he knows his interpretation to be correct.

For example: Sye appeals to Paul's words in Romans 1 when he claims that everyone already knows that God exists and suppresses the truth about him. I would agree with Sye that this is almost definitely what Paul is saying here. But, I do not know that for sure, and in fact there are plenty of Christians who don't think that is what Paul is saying at all. Now, I would have no problem simply writing these Christians off as mistaken, deluded, or possibly ascribing to wishful thinking. But the fact is, I do not know that their interpretations are wrong with absolute certainty. And that level of certainty is what would be required if Sye is right.

Unless and until Sye can tell us how he knows his own interpretations are correct about scripture, his claim that the bible provides him with absolute certainty is meaningless. Now Sye does have a way out of this (or so he thinks), and it's the same sneaky tactic Greg Bahnsen (the Pope of Presuppositionalism) used. He simply shrugs off the question and says "that's a good question for a bible study." The implication is that debates aren't the place for digging into the technicalities of biblical interpretation, but rest assured he could provide you with the answer if he were in the proper forum. It's a good trick, but it doesn't fool me.

Now, I am sure Sye would still just write all this off as irrelevant. After all, if God can use our fallible senses to provide us with certain knowledge, he could use our fallible ability to overcome language barriers as well. Sye could simply presuppose that all is well, all is as it should be, and that there are at least some Christians who have interpreted the bible correctly. As big a dodge as that may be, I will leave it alone and move on to the more devastating problem that Sye faces.

The real clincher in this is the issue of biblical reliability. While we are lacking in data for the issues of translation and interpretation (which are relatively subjective anyway), we do know a thing or two about the reliability of the biblical texts. At this point, there are certain parts of the bible that we can be fairly sure (though not absolutely certain) were not in the original manuscripts. The best example is 1 John 5:7, "For there are three that bear witness in heaven, The Father, The Word, and The Holy Ghost: and these three are one." This passage, which is the clearest reference in the bible to anything even resembling a trinity, is not found in any Greek manuscript until the 1500s. Virtually all scholars agree that this verse is not original to the text of 1 John, though you can still find it in the KJV. Other major examples of texts which are most likely not original are the long ending of Mark (chapter 16:9-20) and the story of the woman caught in adultery in John (7:53-8:11).

My first question for Sye is, do these passages qualify as certain knowledge from God or not, and how does Sye evaluate them? Are they to be considered certain knowledge because they are in the bible? Or are they to be rejected outright because there are doubts about them? Maybe the 1 John passage, because it is accepted as a later addition by a larger number of scholars than the other two, doesn't qualify, while the others do (or... might?). How does Sye Ten Bruggencate decide for himself whether or not passages like these are known by him to be true with absolute certainty?

Most people would simply look at the data and decide for themselves whether or not they accept these texts as authentic, but any honest person would do so tentatively. There could always be more data in the future that could come along and help us come to a proper conclusion. But this demolishes the claim to absolute certainty. If the bible were a source of such certainty to those of us who have never read the original manuscripts (meaning the vast majority of Christians), it would not be able to have any such problems.

Think about it. What if Sye had been living in England in the 1600s, right after the King James Bible had been translated? What if he went around quoting 1 John 5:7 (the way he quotes Romans 1) and claimed that he knew it to be true because God had revealed it to him with absolute certainty? He would now be looked at by historians as a laughing stock. The fact is, we have very good reason to reject the reliability of this passage, and no qualified biblical scholar would defend it as being original to the text of 1 John.

So here is my challenge to Sye. Given the fact that we have manuscript evidence that certain parts of the bible which were, for a very long time, considered reliable are actually most likely later additions, how can you know with absolute certainty that the parts of the bible you appeal to to make your arguments will not be rejected as later additions tomorrow? After all, we could find another set of Dead Sea Scrolls that would change everything. We might find a hundred copies of the Epistle to the Romans that lack chapter 1*.  Every verse you appeal to could be called into question with one discovery.

I am not suggesting that this is at all likely to happen, but the fact is, as long as it is merely possible, you have no grounds for appealing to the bible for absolute certainty. You cannot claim that God would assure that this would not happen, because it has happened, and you cannot deny it.

Likewise, you cannot claim that this is irrelevant to your position. You may try to say that you don't need to know specifically which biblical propositions you have absolute certainty about, but only that you can have such certainty in your own worldview. But as long as your method of knowing things with certainty is itself uncertain, you don't know anything with absolute certainty. You might as well say, "God has revealed things such that I can know them for certain, but I do not know for certain what those things are, because a new discovery could call them into question in the next five minutes." The same tactics you use in your attempts to undermine the atheist's acceptance of the Uniformity of Nature come back to bite you when it comes to the reliability of the bible. But in your case, things are even worse, because we know that parts of the bible have been shown to be unreliable at least once, so you cannot say that you are absolutely certain it will not happen again.

I'll leave it at that. I imagine that Sye will not respond to this in any meaningful fashion. He'll probably just ask me how I can know anything at all, and so on. But, I will be happy to engage anyone who wants to have a more serious discussion.

*ironically, there are some scholars who would not be surprised by this. It has often been suggested that the part of Romans 1 that Sye quotes from was not original to Paul at all.